“Are we crazy?”
That question nagged Melissa Zeph when the Justice Theater Project applied for a grant from the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County in 2007.
“Surrounded by established artists, we wondered if we were in over our heads,” says Zeph, managing director of the North Raleigh-based nonprofit, which uses theater and discussion to encourage dialogue about social issues. “But our goal was to crest the $100,000 budget mark, and we knew we needed support to reach this goal.”
The Justice Theater Project aims not just to entertain, but to draw attention to social issues and inspire dialogue. Established in 2004, the theater’s performances make audiences think by looking at the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed.
Since receiving its first grant in 2007, the theater has more than doubled its income through support from United Arts, which makes grants to support the arts throughout Wake County.
The Justice Theater Project operates on a limited budget, so grants from organizations like United Arts are vital. The theater has steadily expanded with the council’s help, hiring multicultural casts and creating original productions based on topical annual themes. It also offers an annual production of the rarely seen “Black Nativity,” Langston Hughes’ retelling of the Christmas story.
Following race-related tragedies near Baltimore, St. Louis and Charleston, South Carolina, the theater staged performances around the themes of race, history and education. The 2014-2015 season wrapped up with a musical based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, “The Color Purple.”
“Our dream is to make the arts accessible to everyone in Wake County,” says Ragen Carlile, vice president for education and community programs for United Arts, which invested nearly $1 million toward arts programming in 2014.
The Justice Theater Project hopes that the ideas it presents will inspire conversation and change. For example, seeing a play about mental health encouraged two teachers to be more aware of students who might need counseling and to recommend professional help. And during a performance about the death penalty, Deb Royals-Mizerk, the theater’s artistic director, observed the audience’s conflicted emotions.
“We see peoples’ shifting opinions before and after they attend our performances,” says Royals-Mizerk. "And that’s OK. It’s better to admit you aren’t sure and to ask for more information than to feel like you don’t care.”
Sheila Smith McKoy agrees that the Justice Theater Project inspires open conversation about diverse experiences. The associate professor of English at North Carolina State University held a dinner discussion about race relations to accompany the “The Color Purple.”
The discussion explored social justice issues related to the story’s setting in the early 20th century, a time which included lynchings of African Americans, race riots during the ’40s and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
“The dialogue and performances get us all thinking,” McKoy says. “And that’s the most important thing. It’s imperative that the community has this conversation.”
Without the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, Justice Theater Project could not continue to inspire this conversation, says Zeph.
“We can’t do this work alone,” she says.